Writing adventures so far

To those who have stuck by me thank you for reading. To new visitors, thanks for dropping by and know that writing (whether it is reviewing episodes of Doctor Who here or writing stories) is something I pursue because I must, even if it is shoved into the spare hours I have between everything else.

Any who, I’m going on an adventure. A long journey over hill, under hill and dale,  skirting a lonely mountain (or dormant volcano) there and back again to see and commemorate my kin. I may tell of it upon my return. Or I mayn’t. We’ll see.

However, before I leave, probably sans pocket-handkerchief like a certain Baggins, a quick update on this writing malarkey.

This year:

  • Graduated with an MA in Writing and Literature.
  • Seven stories published this year
  • One accepted for publication next year.
  • One story published as part of a poster.
  • One Udemy eBook publication course won as a result of writing.
  • Several stories awaiting notification.
  • One poem awaiting judgement.
  • A couple of stories under way.
  • One complete novella under a bit of renovation before being sent off.
  • Two Zentangle classes complete.
  • Joined Instagram.

 

Ye Olde Zentangle?

Ye Olde Zentangle?

I think that’s it.

Now to sleep and dream because I must away ere break of day. Not quite like Toad from Wind in the Willows, but with the north wind in my hair nonetheless, recalling how he chanted as he flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him…

 

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Art of Inspiration

Inspiration for writing comes from everywhere.  For me, sometimes it’s found in art. It can be through book illustration, or a visit to a gallery or a library (so much art at libraries), or using my own photographs.  It can be through Pintrest (where many hours can be whiled away), or thumbing through art books. It won’t be surprising to you that I do love a good art book, or even an ancient scruffy art book or an anachronistic art history book from a charity shop that I can cut the pictures out of. Because Art.

Charity Find. Too remarkable to cut up. Robert Ingpen.

$2 hardback charity shop find. Too remarkable to cut up. Robert Ingpen.

Artists such as Robert Ingpen, (above) have illustrated memorable and remarkable books (Storm Boy for instance). Then there are the likes of John Howe and Alan Lee, who would be familiar names to anyone with more than a passing regard for JRR Tolkien’s books.

John Howe does he bloody do it? Eh?

John Howe does he bloody do it? Amirite?

Art is also a resource. Which is why digital rights management free stuff is awesome.  Here I’ve been using images from the British Library’s Flickr of 17th, 18th and 19th century book illustrations. They are free for anyone to ‘use, remix and repurpose’. My aim is to make myself snigger quietly re-captioning them. There are other places for images too, or at least for non-commercial uses. I noticed the Metropolitan Museum of Art released photos for such use and Project Gutenberg is worth a look too, although many texts have had their images removed. So you can go there for Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes, and the Met for his drawings.

 

The art book from the State Library of Melbourne  art manuscript exhibition

The book from the State Library of Victoria manuscript exhibition.

Also worth a look is the Getty Museum site and I note the American Museum of Natural History has uploaded Darwin’s manuscripts.  So much to look at. Ancient and new.  I blame my Mum, with her craft books. Some of which I now have.

From a 1990s exhibition at the Museum of South of Australia.

From a 1990s exhibition at the Museum of South of Australia.

I would say, if you think you want to use something and you also want to make money from it, check out the copyright first.  It’s all very well to be inspired, but at the very least creators want to be recognised.

And I won this via twitter from the National Gallery of Victoria. Love you guys!

I won this lovely book via Twitter from the National Gallery of Victoria. Love you guys!

 

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More Story Anyone? Looking forward to the end of The Hobbit

While some bits of  the world are enjoying the opportunity to see the Battle of the Five Armies in the last of The Hobbit franchise, I’m waiting (like many others) for its release in Australia. Which is Boxing Day. Soooo far away. That means Doctor Who Christmas Special and BotFA in the same 24 hours.

Phew.

Anyway, to tide myself over there are all the official trailers, unofficial trailers, interviews, launches and Lego versions I don’t have enough hours in the day to study. The film better be long, otherwise it will feel like I’ve seen it already. In the meantime, I did get my hands on the precious (are we over precious jokes yet?) Extended Edition of the Desolation of Smaug.

Surely I’m not the only one excited by this? Hours of background information about scenes and decision-making. There are all those interviews with film makers, artists, crafters, actors, CGI gurus, writers, stunt and make up people and relatives of individuals who once knew someone who worked with a New Zealander who had a cousin visit the set once.

From the Hand Illustrated Twitchers Guide to Middle Earth. Eagles of the Misty Mountains.

From the Unpublished Hand Illustrated Twitchers Guide to the Wild Lands of Middle Earth. Eagle of the Misty Mountains, sans Wizard.

I’m making fun, but as a person interested in the creation of things, I do want to see behind the scenes. I love the result (mostly – where I’ve had issues, I’ve mentioned them). I’m on board with the documentary making. Some people think this steals the magic from the main event, but I can manage to get caught up in the narrative, while also considering the decisions and choices that went into the creation of such a behemoth of an experience.

But the very best thing aspect is the extend plot. More story! Who doesn’t want more story? It’s the one thing fans demand with their favourite series – more time in the world. This time we get it.

I do appreciate that there are critics of Peter Jackson’s vision and story telling. That’s fair enough, we don’t all have to like the same things, but surely we can agree his work rate over more than a decade is pretty inspiring? Surely we can’t doubt his love of the world? And he kinda reinvented the NZ economy too.

Warg in its natural state, before the training, steroids and anger management issues.

Warg in its natural state (slightly fatigued), before the Goblin training, diet of local inhabitants, steroid regime and anger management baiting.

If you can’t see the effort, that’s fine, you can make your own film versions or appreciate the books. I do appreciate the books. Always have done. But a film is different to a book and my imagination is different to Jackson’s imagination. To me, he is not wrong and I am not right: we are different. I would make a different film. For instance I imagine Beorn quite differently, but his house was congruent to what I pictured in my head. And you too would make a different film. Because interpretation (even if budget and skill were equal). I am willing to consider the films on their own terms.

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Baby dragons, before wings sprout, when they are sensitive to spring showers. Notes from Thranduil’s Secret Dragon Survival Field Studies.

 

Where my disagreements really lie are in those moments I am pulled out of Jackson’s Middle Earth by an awkward shift in tone, or by some scenes that seem a bit video gamey, or by a mismatch in perspective (some characters look gigantic next to the Dwarves and Hobbits). I’ve mentioned this before, but what stood out particularly is Tauriel being hurled the apparent insult of ‘She Elf’. The word She is not an insult.

Overall, however, I’ve enjoyed the ride and look forward to the finale. I’ve appreciated Jackson’s efforts to infuse The Hobbit series with the kind of gravitas LoTR naturally had, by strengthening the links between them more overtly, mirroring themes in LoTR, and making the worlds more cohesive by reducing all the problematic elements of Tolkien’s endearing, but sometimes condescending story telling.

From Beorn's Family Album. Long deceased cousins from the Far North of Middle Earth.

From Beorn’s Family Album. Long deceased cousins from the Far, Far North of Middle Earth.

 

While The Hobbit becomes a children’s story book prelude to the epic saga of LoTR, the films rightly elevates the main narrative of the story, which is the heroic arc of Thorin and his kin. As much as Bilbo is transformed and is important as a thread for the stories, Thorin is the centre of the action. Bilbo is the narrator, watching Thorin, even as he is involved. Bilbo is gracious enough as a writer not to make himself the hero of his own memoir.

Forgetting the sheer scale of all the films, and the detail,  Jackson’s main achievement is lending the Dwarves more dignity in their quest, without dismissing entirely all of the light heartedness in Tolkien’s portrayal of them.

This should be better appreciated.  All such quests deserve their time in the sun.

 

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Writing like a tree

The news, as it is wont to do these days, came via Twitter first, and then I found it in the mail. A poster. One of my stories for If: Books Open Changes was used for a Story Tree poster and it arrived the other day. It’s the first time some of my writing has been published as a poster.

It’s not the best photo, but I thought the result was quite lyrical:

 

Open Changes Story Tree

Open Changes Story Tree

My story, City Lines (or part of it), is along one of the branches. You can read it here in full, if you like, along with the others.

It’s got me thinking about how this project, to write specifically in response to other writing, is just a more deliberate exercise in story telling. The tree, with its natural curved lines that split and cross each other and meander around, is more like writing without the  conscious decision to take inspiration from, or copy or plagiarise (for that matter).

Writing (or anything that offers something to the soupy conglomeration we call culture), both takes from and adds to its sources. It is a leaf on a tree that is ancient and twisted and continually growing, yet, it is also possible for it to become a seed for others so later creative endeavours might generate from it. Writing at it’s best is organic, or as close as to organic as critical thinking types can get. The analysis should come after (if at all).

I might be still under the influence of A Thousand Plateaus, but culture as tree, or writing as a tree has something to it. No matter how tiny a leaf you or I might be as writers (or artists or musicians etc), we are all part of the tree. It’s some comfort to know I can make a contribution, that somehow the tree is vast enough that we can all fit and find a place, and recognise the branches from which we grew and were nourished, artistically speaking.

Even before my poster arrived I was thinking along these lines, partly because I was thinking about my recent forays into Zentangle drawing and photography (just via Instagram) and nature and how organic shapes juxtaposed to architecture ones sing, with the right effort. Yet is was also partly because, for all the sadness in a recent article by actor Samuel Johnson, there is beauty and power too. I urge you to read it. I won’t spoil it, except to say one of his points wasn’t lost on me: some things last and other things do not. The things that are not lost, often happen to be part of the tree.

If I hope to have any kind of legacy it is by clinging to this tree. I’m not arguing for my lasting fame as a writer, because despite the value humans have tended to put on past art, what becomes of it in the future is down to luck.  I feel sorry for that harried 51st century researcher investigating the archaeology of late 20th century email correspondence through surviving floppy discs, for instance.

My point is I suppose, is that…

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain…

Then I grab that pen, or go to my keyboard, for there is much to do before I fall off the twig (in a long, long time hence).

 

Rough Draft: Zentangle seed from the Tree.

Rough Draft: Zentangle seed from the Tree.

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Oops I drew it again

I just attended my second Zentangle class at Abbotsford Convent with Beverley, who is gently encouraging and wonderfully welcoming. The time magically disappears in what is the perfect place for lessons like this. On the edge of the city and not so far from the free way, it is at once busy and peaceful. While we were concentrating, the silence was profound and comfortable.

The cloister surrounding the quadrangle. All around me are patterns of stately decay.

The cloister surrounding the quadrangle. All around me are patterns of stately decay.

Students in each class are taught the same drawing. Each pattern has a name and becomes part of a larger picture. Like a movement becomes part of a dance or a bar becomes part of a song. It is about repetition, shading, and not worrying.

Making a start.

Making a start.

We keep going until it resembles nothing in particular, but something nonetheless, with pencil shading and chalk highlights offering depth.

Some doodling, renaissance style.

Some doodling, renaissance style.

And while every student has followed the same instructions, each result is different. No one is right and no one is wrong, each is an interpretation. It makes manifest what each of us does everyday when we attempt to understand something.

Import December 2014 2400

I think this kind of drawing fits with my writing because so much of my writing is little bits of a thing at a time, sometimes a few words here or there, until it becomes a 1500 story or a 500 word flash fiction. Zentangling is the same, you don’t need acres of canvas, but a little piece of paper, or as it happens a little blank journal and off you go. Rather than looking at my phone I can doodle, or write. With both, it’s about ensuring you’re not intimidated into starting by a huge blank canvas or empty page.

Furthermore, it’s about not censoring or judging what you do. You make a mistake but you keep going, one line at a time. There is always some way to fix it later. That’s a pretty decent lesson for writers.

Drawing like this is also congruent with my writing because so much of it is about identifying and replicating patterns. So much so that afterwards I look about me and wonder how I can incorporate aspects of the local architecture into a picture. Like the staircase below:

Patterns everywhere!

Patterns everywhere!

This doodling helps in other ways too. It’s non thinking time, which I’ve always found useful in allowing ideas for writing to pop up. As a result I’ve restarted writing properly, rather than just tinkering. Recently I’ve sent out stories to find markets, but having done that I’ve looked at what I have left and some stories aren’t finished, or are a bit tired – they need the pencil shading and the chalk lift, in drawing terms. So I’m re-framing one story, while I’m using something from a writing journal I wrote a couple of years ago for class for the central conceit of another narrative thing.  It will all work out in the end.

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Genre-trification

This year I graduated with an MA in Writing and Literature. Throughout, the emphasis in the writing components was upon ‘literature’. We could only use aspects of genre or sneak them sideways into our short stories or essays.

However, I’m over artificially constructed barriers. Surely there is nothing unliterary with the works of China Mieville or Ursula Le Guin, for example? They explore big ideas in rich vivid language and both care about plot, meaning and character. They say as much about our current world as Kafka did or Etgar Keret does. And it is timely, given Le Guin’s recent speech:

Back in the Day

In high school, the town library was also the school library. It stocked every Isaac Asimov novel, which I read. And I read the Riftwar Saga, some of the endless Dragonlance series, and every Tolkien publication (current at the time) in beautiful, but unloved hard bound tomes. It featured Mrs Smith, who every year lent me the new award-winning children’s books as they came in for me to appreciate. Thanks Mrs Smith! I still do. The library also hosted author visits and held art exhibitions – I particularly recall a calligraphy one. My point is during my youth I read widely: from Joan Aiken to Edgar Allan Poe. Some books were full of ideas, other works were description heavy, and others were just poetic reveries. I barely remember any of the Asimov, for instance, but Castle of Dark by Tanith Lee I recall very well (and have a copy in a box under the stairs).

The point is there are some fabulous writers who turn out lovely stories that are also science fiction or fantasy, and/or also for the YA market, but are also very definitely literary. Lee is in this category. Then there is Asimov. Interesting ideas (something, something robots and their rules about not killing), but nothing stands out particularly about his prose.

Truce

It’s time for academics to end their war on genre, based on assumptions that these authors don’t care about language as much as they do for ideas. A recent Guardian article about science fiction novels vs video games prompted me to think that it’s time for academics to accept that most of our contemporary entertainment revolves around high concept, immersive worlds. Why should I devote so much time understanding Kafka, when the likes of Cory Doctorow and Mieville and JK Rowling or Traci Harding earn a living and contribute to the world of ideas in a way Kafka never actually achieved or even imagined?

It’s not that I’m all about the money, but a literary best seller is about 5,000 plus copies. Some authors in genre fiction have sales in the millions.

It would be great if literary prose sold millions and authors like Drusilla Modjeska were heralded in parades like footballers on grand final day. It would be interesting to debate whether a divide between popular and high culture still exists (if it ever did), or if it’s all just culture, floating in a fractured soup of info-entertainment humans partake in or ignore on a global scale.

This is how I didn't research my essays.

This is how I didn’t research my essays.

Tech Crunch

Very little time during my course was spent on the new world order in publishing. Students each researched a topic and delivered a class, but it would have been more valuable to hear from a range of industry experts. I’m catching this up now in a short course I won through entering a flash fiction competition through if:book Australia at the Qld Writers Centre. This group focus on experimental prose and digital literature. Go them for achieving some of what I imagined our universities to be attempting.

Perhaps, the fact that my course was not so interested in digital literature, despite being located in a university that prides itself for its technology, is more to do with the staff. Either they are heading for retirement, or casual with no power to introduce change, or early or mid-career academics with too much at stake trying to publish or perish to have the time to look at their students, necks craned over their smartphones and tablets.

(singing) what about me…

When I attended the 68th World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne in 2010 I was struck by the enthusiasm and friendliness of readers. They respected the authors and artists, and equally the authors and artists were glad to be there. It was joyous and serious. I learned a lot. And it’s not even that I write much SF, or even read much current SF. I have a pile of Mieville to attempt and have only just started reading a John Scalzi novel, mainly because of that event. And I want to go back and find more Ursula Le Guin (because what I recall most are her essays on writing), or finish the Harding Ancient Future series, . But 2010 started me thinking that there are possibilities in such a community, because I see the ‘literary’ world as smaller and bleaker and more insular, at least in Australia. I keep sending stories and entering competitions, but so far nada.

If all this means anything, it’s that perhaps I should focus more on SF and leave behind the high art ambitions for ‘literariness’. Or somehow combine them to be equally ignored by genre and literary publishers:) Or maybe I will change my name Ian (M) Banks style and attempt both. We’ll see.

 

Perhaps I shall return to the technology of my predecessors?

Perhaps I shall return to the technology of my predecessors?

 

 

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Review: The Graveyard Book

The care of the living for the dead and the dead for the living

It’s a pretty grand theme and is nothing less than one of the notions behind Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I finished it recently. I think I like both this and Coraline better than American Gods, all three of which are high concept novels about worlds and the beings who slip between them, with American Gods being adult fiction.

I like Bod and I like how characters were introduced through inscriptions. I appreciated how he changed and struggled with his world – and the world beyond. Miss Lupescu is obvious in her depiction, but Silas is strangely difficult to decipher. There is a tragic arc to the story of Scarlet that was deftly achieved, and I missed entirely the point of Mr Frost until it became overt.

Depictions of place were effective, particularly of the graveyard itself, even if exactly how Bod lived is less detailed. There is a danger that this book and others (more of which down further) romanticises nature, without clearly understanding it.

The barrow sequences were especially charged and fraught and presented a neat narrative circularity that showed how Bod and Scarlet developed. I like the bind that the Jacks were forced into by their own actions: by seeking to prevent their prophecy they enable its fulfilment. But I want this to signify something. Bod was special, but coming of age meant he left this behind and I am deeply unhappy with that. He mastered something no one had before and in the end….pfft.

I also want more *something* regarding the dance. In its effect it was a little reminiscent of the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn from the Wind in the Willows, whereby Portly is saved by a demigod, but for the animals to survive this experience of the numinous, they must forget. But why the dance?

In fact, most of the characters had this reluctance to confront issues or explain events to Bod (and thus to me) and this is intensely frustrating. This is exacerbated by the emotionally climatic ending. Yet Bod deserves a sequel. It would great to see him as an adult reunited with the ghosts of his past, as they ever were. It would be interesting to see him attempt to defend Silas.

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War baby?

Basically, everything I didn’t like had to do with what was missed out or skipped. The Graveyard Book suffers from The Hobbit syndrome, whereby both Tolkien and Gaiman  make narrative decisions about how to present the action outside of the main character’s awareness. In both cases, because of the intended audience and because of space or time, battle scenes are perfunctorily described, even as they deal with the death of important characters that shape the plot. None of these characters deserve this in-passing treatment.

This annoys me. If annoyed me as a kid and it annoys me now. If writers are going to dare enough to invent worlds that feature murder and battles and present these as suitable for kids I think they can be a little more…honest.  In the world, kids endure wars and I don’t know, broken homes or even the occasional dose of news on TV, so I think they can cope with a couple of fictional accounts of battle scenes between monsters and heroes.

Kids can and do read stuff they are too old for, and can and do stop reading what they can’t cope with. I know I did. Plus parents edit their kids reading all the time.

To be fair, Gaiman addresses the first driver of the plot well. It was tense, eerie and menacing without being gory. But then, later, I believe he did the Honour Guard a disservice by not describing them, their roles and their sacrifices more completely. Too much was hinted at and like the ghosts themselves, not enough became solid.

For all my criticisms I think this was a better realised world than American Gods. I’ve never thought of cemeteries as particularly negative spaces. If you think about it, the suffering of those buried there happened elsewhere (mostly) and this is true for Nobody Owens.

Boundaries

Gaiman was inspired by the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, where a boy is raised by animals. Philosophically, Gaiman, and David Malouf in An Imaginary Life, correlate childhood to a state where not only the human brain is more malleable but more attune to subtle worlds: with Malouf it’s nature; with Gaiman it’s the supernatural.

Both authors build into their narratives assumptions about how growing up means abandoning these for the ‘real world’. A part of me sees how this works. As we grow up we become, generally, more ‘fixed’ in our personalities, our likes and dislikes and in our ideas about how ‘reality’ works. Malouf demonstrates with Ovid that this certainty is most vulnerable when humans are at the edge of what they know – in terms of living and dying and in terms of civilisation.

The rest of me abhors and rejects this entirely. I loathe this as a trope. I want some author to examine why this is so or to offer an alternative where Bod can be what he was and be an adult, for instance. As a writer I strive to ensure I hang onto a sense of wonder. I want to explore boundaries. Writing is treating the imagination as real. What I imagine manifests, alchemically, as a story and then exists independently as a thing, sometimes even as a physical item, in the world. A story transgresses boundaries. It is magic. It is maybe the only magic we have left.

I will never stop believing in it.

So why can’t some characters?

Outsiders

Literature is littered with instances of the outsider: god/being/person who exists on the borders or has special connections to nature or the gods. Literature, mostly, is concerned with how they (and therefore the rest of us) lose this connection and pick a side. This dates to the wild man Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh whose affinity for animals and nature was lost after a week with Shamhat, Temple Prostitute.  This particular idea ricochets through literature for 4000 years +. Gaiman hints at it. A part of Bod growing up is about understanding and losing Scarlet and Liza. If he had written it for adults this may have become more overt.

It’s problematic too, women repeatedly depicted as vessels of civilisation. Or corrupters of ‘natural’ men, inducting them into the realm of domesticity or life and death, where men and women are both ‘impure’ – divorced from nature (or the dead or the numinous). It assumes women are always responsible for men’s ‘fall from grace’ – a la Adam and Eve. The exceptions are Liza, the witch and Miss Lupescu who are both free to cross borders – in and out of civilisation and beyond the grave. Liza is a witch – a (perceived) transgressor of social and religious norms, even in death. Miss Lupescu is a different order of being. As a teacher (and ‘foreigner’) she passes through the world, but never belongs to it. So that is where women end up: if they are not Eve (Scarlet), they are exiles, like Liza or not even human, like Miss Lupescu.

Life/Death

If Gaiman is interested at the beginning of this process with Bod as a baby. Malouf is interested in the possibility of a return in older age. His Ovid, after trying to teach his Wild Child, eventually accepts the Child as teacher. This enables Ovid to properly cross the border between Roman civilisation and the unknown wilds. He learns that he is not exiled to a Roman outpost, but is entering another world –  one we all must enter in the end.

Romanticised nature, nature as a realm we lose as we enter adulthood - for how much longer do require these ideas.

Romanticised nature, nature as a realm we lose as we enter adulthood – for how much longer do require these ideas?

 

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